As Julian calendars around the world collectively flipped to 2009, Flying Lab Software flipped the switch to a long-awaited revision to avatar combat in Pirates of the Burning Sea. And looking back on my review from February of last year, avatar combat was certainly an aspect of Burning Sea that begged for some attention. Russell Williams, CEO of Flying Labs Software, thought my complaints versus avatar combat were a “fair cop.” In his words (just over a year ago): “[Avatar combat] was a system that came in fairly late. We’d originally planned to ship without avatar combat and it hasn’t had the many iterations of love that ship combat went through. We will be continuing to work on it, of course, and polish it up until it’s just as good as the rest of the game.”
There are times when returning to a game after a lengthy hiatus can leave you baffled. Scratching your head, you may not recall exactly what you appreciated in a game in the first place. You look around and notice that the thrill (and fog) of holding something new has melted away in the sunny rays of time and distance. At best, picking up an old character--instead of starting anew--can stymie your efforts to get back into the flow, while, at worst, your old character can feel like an eBay purchase. (Okay, you’ve got this high level character…now what do you do with it?) Head hung low you accept defeat and concede to the fact that nostalgia--even one-year-old nostalgia--may not be enough to carry the day.
Burning Sea, however, doesn’t succumb to that. Not entirely.
While I feel perfectly clueless as to how to rebuild my character’s skills, pushing off the pier instantly rekindles what’s so special about Burning Sea. The water scintillates like a rapper’s medallion, the clouds trundle on the horizon like herds of white pacaderms, and my steed--my ship--cuts a swath of whitewash across the cerulean map. Burning Sea still manages to ensnare a huge breadth of freedom of movement, a healthy portion of what makes the ocean so enthralling in the first place.
Standing on the docks of the French nation’s new-character town, Charlesfort (I felt that was the safest place to walk away from Burning Sea after my initial 30 days had lapsed, over one year ago), I immediately digest the facelift that the well-established (present day) South Carolinian town has received over the last 12 months. Charlesfort is functionally no different now, but its facade is noticeably more aristocratic: Fitting for a town that was one of the first European settlements in North America. I spy in the chat lot that my revived level 20 privateer, Armand Dresden, is having all of his Swashbuckling Skill Points handed back to him. A reboot to the fighting system means a refund of my previously spent points.
I seek out the Dirty Fighting skill trainer immediately. Being boarded at sea without even the faintest idea of how to draw my cutlass would be…silly. I find the trainer and, with no clue as to the min/max balancing options, I spend my eleven points as evenly as possible across the categories of Control, Defense, Offense, and Black Powder.
The 1.11 build (known as “The Clash of Steel”) which went live at the beginning of January now brings Burning Sea’s combat even more within recognizable MMO conventions. Health still operates as expected. Health equals your hitpoints. When you’ve taken enough steel and pistol shots, your hitpoints will go away and you will be knocked out (and revivable with smelling salts). Your Guard, however, is a new convention to avatar combat. Guard operates like armor, creating an outer shield protecting your Health much in the way that armor protects your ship’s inner Structure. Almost all skills (like Eviscerate, Shoot, or Gut Kick) require Initiative to execute. If you lack Initiative you’ll be handcuffed from using any skills. Initiative does recover quickly in combat, though, and even quicker out of combat.
Another major difference between new school and old school combat is the arc of your attacks. Shooting your pistol will indeed target only one enemy, but melee attacks will often cover a 90-degree area of effect in the direction you’re facing. Blood will fly from multiple enemies from singular attacks. This, in general, has rendered combat far easier than in previous builds, which is a godsend considering the lethality of melee combat before. Old school rules also made shipboard combat unpalatable as enemies would aggro in a different direction every split second. With enemies running all over topside, it made shipboard combat more of a sprint than a sparring match. Now I’ve noticed--though my evidence is not scientific--that enemies tend to settle on their targets more readily, with seemingly less running about during fights.
Avatar combat as a whole has markedly improved. The difficulty has been reined in so much that I felt compelled to visit the Port Captain (one is found is every town) and kick the difficulty up a notch. This puts less computer-controlled allies on my side and more enemies on the other. Should this prove daunting then I can just as easily ratchet it back down to a more favorable degree. Sad as I am to say it, however, combat remains a jerky prospect, and needs to quit trying to serve as such a frenetic foil to the deliberately-paced ship-to-ship combat.
Of course, PvP’ing against other player captains doesn’t grant any leeway in difficulty. And as I wander about the sparsely-populated towns, and as I sail the largely empty sea lanes, I bear witness to another slowly sinking MMO. The few players I see in passing are all--without exception--at the level 50 cap. Odds are that I’d see at least one, maybe two, lower level players. And I’m sure they’re out there, but I sure didn’t see them. Flying Lab Software went from eleven servers down to four in April of last year, and they’re holding fast to that number. Still, the based-in-reality backdrop, the non-flashy avatar combat, heavily-instanced land-based missions, and the humans-only lack of fantasy fiction may not provide enough of a ritual escape for the online roleplaying crowd. Nevertheless, Burning Sea’s ship-to-ship combat is second to absolutely none, and it should be a crime punishable by law for fans of nautical combat to not invest at least a month into Flying Lab Software’s Caribbean.
The “Clash of Steel” avatar combat revamp serves as more than a tweak and less than an overhaul in terms of the change it brings. The to-and-fro flow of combat is not entirely removed, but is notably lessened, while other deviations from the older formula make melee combat a much easier pill to swallow. Still, ship-to-ship combat is Burning Sea’s belle of the ball, singularly making up for the still shaky melee.